Sovereignty and the Old Testamentchapter six, THE ZEBRA
I was recently at a service where the speaker told a fable. It went something like this.
There were four fellas; they each wore different-colored glasses, red, blue, yellow and green. They stood at the edge of a field; in the distance was a zebra. They were each asked to describe the color of the zebra.
As one would expect, the guy with the red glasses saw a red and black zebra; the guy with the blue glasses, blue and black. So, it went, yellow, and green, each seeing the zebra through their lenses, in their respective colors.
The speaker then presented a question to us, “Who is correct regarding the true color of the zebra?” He paused long enough for me to have the thought, “Zebras are white and black.”
But that wasn’t the question.
“Who knows the true color of the zebra?” the speaker asked again and then he answered.
WHAT THE HELL?
I remember the first time I read about how David won a battle against the Moabites and after the battle “he made them (the Moabites) lie down on the ground and measured them off with a length of cord. Every two lengths of them were put to death, and the third length was allowed to live. So the Moabites became subject to David and brought him tribute.” Samuel 81:2
When I finished reading this I literally said out loud, “What the hell?”
Seriously, what the hell?
This story is just a paragraph in the many chapters of David’s incredible life. It’s a seemingly insignificant footnote, unless you were a Moabite, then it’s a story of horrifying slaughter. And oddly, the author apparently didn’t feel the need to enlighten us as to how David came to this seemingly random approach to flirting with genocide.
This cold-blooded brutality, this almost casual annihilation of entire people groups; it’s everywhere in the Old Testament. And what’s most disconcerting, as often as not, God seems to be credited as the primary instigator.
Moses writes about it a good deal. In fact, he’s the guy who “penned” the famous story of Noah. You know, the story where God seems keen on killing everyone.
“The LORD regretted that he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was deeply troubled. So the LORD said, “I will wipe from the face of the earth the human race I have created—and with them the animals, the birds and the creatures that move along the ground—for I regret that I have made them.” Genesis 5:6-8
What the hell?
The Old Testament is littered with stories like this one. Stories where humanity is depraved, and God is angry, and destruction is imminent, and then often realized.
Then, to the wonder and eternal gratitude of all of us, Jesus is introduced into the narrative. And with His arrival, God’s thoughts about us suddenly seem to change.
In the Old Testament, “If a man is found sleeping with another man’s wife, both the man who slept with her and the woman must die.” (1) And yet, in the New Testament, when a woman, caught in adultery, is thrown at Jesus’ feet, He says, “neither do I condemn you” (2) and He forgives her.
In the Old Testament, God “hates all who do wrong.” (3) In the New Testament, He fellowshipped with sinners. He dined with them, laughed and cried with them, He delivered, healed and saved them. I can’t think of any stories where He killed them. I don’t think it happened even once.
So yeah, I’m not the first person to notice that the God of the Old Testament seems to be very different from the God Jesus revealed in the New. The disparity is enough to make one think God was either seriously manic for a long time, or He is fickle, changing like the wind. But then we read Malachi 3:6, “I the Lord do not change…”
And so, we’re left with the question, “if God didn’t change, what did?”
2000 years ago, Jesus walked the earth and for the first time, we saw God as He truly was. And God was way different than we thought. He wasn’t a controlling deity disappointed by our stumbling. He didn’t seem outraged by our brokenness, by our sin. He wasn’t in a bad mood. He wasn’t angry, at least not in the vengeful way the writers of the Old Testament seemed to portray Him. He didn’t smite anyone, didn’t even seem to want to.
Yes, He strongly addressed lack of faith. Yes, He challenged all humanity to wholehearted surrender. And yes, one time He even used a whip to drive the money lenders out of the temple grounds. But there were no deaths, not even a report of injury – just hurt pride.
Don’t get me wrong, Jesus did get angry.
But when Jesus was angry, it was with the religious leaders; the self-righteous who sought control like the drug it is; the self-serving who used the theology of control to oppress others; those who shamed and condemned in His name; those who wielded control like a sword. Yet, while He used some strong language when confronting or describing them, “brood of vipers,” “blind guides,” “fools” and“hypocrites,” (4) even then, He never once followed it up with a killing spree.
Jesus never once had people put down in the dirt, divided into thirds and then had two out of every three slaughtered where they lay.
The stories of God and mass killings seem to be missing from the four Gospels; the four books in which God is most clearly revealed. Oddly, the clearest revelation of God, the perfect picture of sovereignty, seems to be missing the angry, murderous, destructive bent.
And no one seemed to understand.
Jesus lived absolutely counter to religious culture, He turned the world upside down. The last were first, the poor were rich, the meek inherited the earth, the weak became strong, sinners were loved, prostitutes forgiven, and willful prodigals greeted with a kiss – none of it made sense.
Jesus, revealing God for who He truly is, walked as the perfect expression of sovereign love. And everyone was baffled by it.
I would like to propose that the reason no one could truly comprehend, was because all humanity wore colored glasses.
They saw everything, including Jesus, through the lens of sovereign control. It’s not surprising – control had been the prevailing perspective since the fall.
Even Jesus disciples, those who had never once witnessed Jesus do anything that smacks remotely of genocide, were wearing shades.
“When the days were approaching for His ascension, He (Jesus) was determined to go to Jerusalem; and He sent messengers on ahead of Him, and they went and entered a village of the Samaritans to make arrangements for Him. But they did not receive Him, because He was traveling toward Jerusalem.
When His disciples James and John saw this, they said, “Lord, do You want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” But He turned and said…
“What the hell?”
I’m not being trite, nor trying to offend. I believe hell is a pretty accurate word to expose the spirit behind the disciple’s thinking…
“…But He turned and said, ‘You do not know what kind of spirit you are of; for the Son of Man did not come to destroy men’s lives, but to save them.’” (5)
If you want the clearest understanding regarding God’s heart for humanity, this scripture is a good place to start. In fact, it’s the point of this entire chapter.
Long ago, I made Jesus, sovereign love, my hermeneutic, my “methodology of interpretation,” (6) the lens through which my entire theology is defined. But the disciples hadn’t gotten there yet…
Jesus essentially says to his hell fire disciples, “Fellas, your theology is really messed up, your lenses are colored, your perspective of who I am is horribly flawed! For nearly three years you have witnessed me save, heal, deliver, forgive, redeem, restore and empower. Never once did I use fire and brimstone. Guys, the spirit behind your desire to see destruction reigned down is in direct opposition to everything I have been revealing. Seriously, the control lens through which you perceive me is from the pit of hell.”
Then Jesus continued to perfectly reveal sovereign Love and His dealings with humanity by journeying on to the cross and to resurrection life.
And He completely changed the way we could know what God looked and acted like. No longer did we have to interpret Him through a theology of control, now we could know Him through the revelation of love.
Jesus is the lens.
He revealed a truer narrative and with it, humanity gained access to the whole story. We can truly see God, from Old Testament through the New. We can truly discover sovereignty, we can truly trust Him, we can truly be free.
My point, it wasn’t God that changed from Old Testament to New, it was our perspective. Or more accurately, our perspective can change, if we chose to make Jesus, sovereign love, the lens, “the author and perfecter of our faith.” (7)
You see, until Jesus, we had bits and pieces of the story, God inspired fragments. The Old Testament writers revealed God like the zebra in a field. Some said, “He is red with black stripes.” Some said, “He is blue; still others said yellow and green.” Then God walked among us in the flesh and revealed Himself perfectly.
“Who knows the true color of the zebra?”
I believe Jesus is the whole story. He is the lens through which I can truly know God. And He is the lens through which I read the Old Testament.
For me, interpreting the Old Testament outside the revelation of Jesus is to completely miss the point. It’s foolish. It would be like watching the first pre-season game of the Buffalo Bills and then buying tickets to watch them play in the Super Bowl.
I am convinced that Jesus is the lens by which we interpret the Old Testament and the New. And I have discovered that when I read through the lens of sovereign love, suddenly a story about a flood that wipes out nearly all of humanity doesn’t make me desperate or insecure.
It has always been God’s heart that none would perish. (8)
GOD INSPIRED AND MOSES INTERPRETED
Moses is the fella credited to have most likely written what would have already been the age-old story of Noah; a story that had been orally passed down from generation to generation.
Moses was one hundred percent inspired by God when he wrote the first five books regarding the relationship between God and man. And what Moses wrote was an absolutely true story. But I would like to suggest it was not the whole story. Moses didn’t have the whole story yet; he wasn’t looking at God and man through the perfect lens of sovereign love; the lens revealed in Jesus life, death and resurrection.
Therefore, while Moses’ perspective was fully inspired by God, was powerful and good, I would like to propose it was not definitive; it was not complete.
When it comes to Noah’s story, God inspired and Moses interpreted the inspiration. And I would like to suggest that Moses had a theology, a context, a paradigm, a narrative, a lens – sovereign control.
In the sovereign control narrative of Moses’ day, it was determined that if you touched a leper you were made unclean. (9) In the sovereign love narrative, Jesus revealed the whole story. When He touched a leper, the leper was made clean. (10)
In the control perspective of Moses’ day, punishment was the language of God. Moses captured this well when He wrote on God’s behalf “…I will wipe from the face of the earth the human race I have created.”
However, Jesus revealed the whole story, a truer perspective, the language of forgiveness and redemption, when He said, “…for the Son of Man did not come to destroy men’s lives, but to save them.”
Here’s what I am trying to convey, Moses saw the zebra in a field, he described it truly through the lens he had, sovereign control. He described it truly but not definitively, not completely. He captured the problem but not the solution, he wrote down the story, but it wasn’t the whole story.
Then Jesus came and gave us perfect 20/20 vision regarding what God was like, sovereign love. And Jesus also made it clear how to read the whole Bible.
“You study the scriptures because you think in them is eternal life but they testify of me.” (11)
Jesus wasn’t talking about the New Testament; it hadn’t been written yet. He was specifically addressing how to interpret the Old Testament. His point was that scripture wasn’t the answer, it pointed to the answer. And He was also making it clear, He was that answer.
Jesus is “the word made flesh” (12) He is the interpretation.
Scripture tells a story, scripture paints a picture of a zebra in a field, it describes what the zebra is like.
But who truly knows the color of a zebra?
I believe every word of the Bible is inspired of God. God inspired and men wrote it down. But the Bible is not a part of the Trinity. The Bible isn’t God, it reveals Him. And we all have a God lens. And that lens determines everything.
What if we read the story of Noah through the interpretation of Jesus? What if we applied God’s heart not “to destroy men’s lives, but to save them” to that epic tale? Is it possible we might see it differently?
What if the depravity of sin was so devastating in Noah’s day that humanity and innocence were being consumed? What if “every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time.” (13) What if the earth “was corrupt” and “full of violence?” (14) What if, like Paul notes in Romans 8, “all creation” groaned under the weight of sin and death? (15)
What if this groaning of a broken and fallen earth erupted in the form of an all-consuming flood? What if God, in His saving mercy, gave humanity a 120-year warning by sending a message to the one man on the planet who was living in such a way that he could hear it.
What if, for the next 120 years, Noah built an ark by God’s instruction, grace and provision? What if the feat was an act of faith like none seen before on the planet? What if the construction was supernaturally ahead of its time in design and engineering?
What if the people lived in the shadow of this magnificent testimony of God’s desire to save them for 120 years and yet not one person repented, not one heart softened?
And what if the people would have humbled themselves and prayed, and sought His face, and turned from their wicked ways? Is it possible He would have forgiven their sin and healed their land? (16)
What if God, who was perfectly revealed in Jesus, does not change? What if it has never been His heart “to destroy men’s lives,” and it has always been His heart “to save them,” even during the time of Noah’s flood?
Noah’s story is incredible. He lived faithfully obedient in the context of sovereign control. But I want to highlight the difference between Noah’s navigation of a flood and how we have been set free to navigate a flood today.
I want to suggest that the clarity of our perception determines everything.
Noah’s lens on God was not definitive, He did not have the revelation of Christ, a redeemed perspective, the whole story. For Noah, God was sovereignly in control and in a control narrative, the flood was perceived as God’s wrathful punishment of a horrendously sinful people. It was something to be survived.
What does a man of faith in a control narrative do when an angry God desires to destroy everything with a flood? He faithfully and obediently works night and day on his salvation with one fearful eye always searching the sky; he builds a boat and prays he survives the coming destruction.
I know many believers who serve a God in control; a God they perceive as angry and wrathful; a God who seeks to punish sin with destruction. They work day and night on their salvation. They live fearfully, one eye always searching the sky for signs of humanities impending doom. Their prayer life consists of desperate pleas for a stay of execution. They seek to survive.
Please understand, I am not suggesting Noah got it wrong, in the narrative of his day, he knocked it out of the park! But I am suggesting that if we, today, perceive God through the same control lens Noah did, we will live in the same narrative.
Have you ever wondered why we have a Christian sub-culture in America?
I would like to suggest it’s because much of the church still interprets God and man through the lens of sovereign control. Therefore, when it gets darker in the world, Christians don’t get brighter; no, they build a sub-culture; they become survivors, looking for a way to navigate the coming flood.
But I would like to suggest that if a flood where prophesied today, building an ark to survive it would be counter to the gospel of Jesus.
We have the whole story! “…for the Son of Man did not come to destroy men’s lives, but to save them.”
Christians aren’t called to fear floods; we aren’t even called to survive them. We are called to live like Jesus; to release His kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. We are called to overcome, to break through, to live as expressions of sovereign love.
We have the whole story and in Christ, we can live in such a powerfully surrendered way that floods must bend the knee.
In the revelation of sovereign love, we have been commissioned to reveal salvation to all we encounter, to bring light to every dark place. We are called to release hope to the hopeless, redemption to the prodigal, salvation, transformation and life to every dead, broken and hurting place. We are invited to live confident and sure as powerful expressions of His sovereign love that none would perish.
We are living in the whole story. If we are willing to walk away from the ideology of sovereign control and make Jesus, sovereign love, our lens, our hermeneutic, our methodology for interpretation, we will become a church that doesn’t fear floods. Instead, floods will fear us.
Please get this, we aren’t here to call down fire! Nor are we here to build a Christian sub-culture in which we might survive – a boat for the world-ending flood. “On earth, as it is in heaven,” (17) that’s why we are here. “Even greater works shall you do.” (18) That’s what Jesus revealed and promised.
A GREATER REVELATION
Noah couldn’t do something outside his theology. But more to the point, neither can we.
Sovereign control is the narrowest lens through which to know God. It’s salvation through works. It takes the least amount of faith and doesn’t take into account God’s eternal and sovereign love.
To describe God as sovereignly in control is an earthbound perspective; it doesn’t include heaven’s perspective. It is finite thinking dictated by the fear of coming floods. A God in control, is human reasoning. While it may seem to be an accurate assessment of our experience, while it may appear true from where we are standing, it’s not the truth that sets us free.
Sovereign control is not in God’s nature; it’s in man’s perception. It only works outside the revelation of perfect love and the context of eternity.
We need a better perspective, a greater revelation.
WHO KNOWS THE TRUE COLOR OF THE ZEBRA?
There are some profound similarities between Noah and Jesus. Both were righteous men. Both walked in radical obedience. Both lived a powerful faith. Both were mocked and persecuted for their trust in God, and both lived in such a powerful way as to establish a future, a new world for the generations to come.
But their approach to life and ministry and the world around them couldn’t have been more different. Why? Because their theology was vastly different.
Noah’s theology was control. Noah faithfully obeyed and he and his family survived. It’s a good story, a true story.
Jesus’ theology was love. Jesus faithfully obeyed and he laid down His life, He died. And then Jesus rose and in His resurrection purchased salvation for all. It’s a better story, the whole story.
In Noah’s narrative, a handful of people survived. In Jesus narrative, all men can be saved.
Which narrative do you want to live in?
Survival is what we get with a theology of control; resurrection life is what we get with a theology of love.
I am not suggesting the Bible lessons learned from Noah’s faith aren’t truly life-changing. It’s the word of God; it’s true.
I am suggesting Noah’s lens was not definitive or complete regarding the nature of God.
And I’m suggesting there is one way by which to truly read the whole Bible and one way to truly know God…
The speaker then presented the question to us, “Who is correct regarding the true color of the zebra?” He paused long enough for me to have the thought, “Zebras are white and black.”
But that wasn’t the question.
“Who knows the true color of the zebra,” the speaker asked again and then he answered. “The zebra.”
Jesus is the Zebra.
He is sovereign love. He is the whole story. When the Bible is interpreted through Jesus, when our perspective comes into alignment with His, we join in the whole story and we begin to live sure in the power of our salvation, in the power of resurrection life!